Today, I read word that Richard Matheson, author of I am Legend, died, at 87. Rest in peace, Richard. Matheson was responsible for much more than his most famous book, including episodes of the Twilight Zone, books What Dreams May Come and Stir of Echoes, Duel (the story, then the screenplay for the Spielberg film). Even if you’ve never read Matheson, you’ve likely encountered his vision of normality in extremis.
But like so many others, I will chiefly remember Matheson for I am Legend. In 2007 I was in graduate school, writing a thesis on Hamlet, and reading little other than Elizabethan studies. I was not reading sci-fi and horror, which, in recollection, is sad. But with the impending release of the film I am Legend, I decided to pick up the book and squeeze it in on train rides around Chicago. It completely blew my mind. I still bask in the novel’s ending, how remarkable, shocking and beautifully tragic is the conclusion to my favorite vampire/zombie story. The book remains, as I elegantly described it 7 years ago, fucking unbelievable.
Here’s my quick and dirty write up, from 2007, of I am legend:
I don’t really read science fiction or horror novels much these days. When I do it’s usually because there’s a film version coming out, and it looks awesome. Well, I Am Legend was no different. I heard about the film over a year ago, thought it sounded awesome, and now I’ve just finished the book. I Am Legend, the book by Richard Matheson, you should read it. It will only take you a few days.
For those who like post-apocalyptic fiction, or science fiction, or just an interesting piece of work, it’s a wonderful read. It’s like a modernist “literature of of the mundane” set in the most terrible scenario imaginable. Sure, it’s a “vampire” novel, but it’s not really a vampire book. It’s far more an experiment in morality. If you were the last human being on earth, what ethical and moral code would restrain you? That’s Robert Neville’s position. Everyone on the planet has been infected by the plague of 1975, and turned into either a vampire (someone who died from the plague and came back to life) or was infected but never died, and therefore is technically living with an illness.
Robert, who spends his nights drunk and his days killing the sleeping and hiding infected, thinking about women, and missing the world, is also pleasantly a deep-thinker, bringing up some of the most interesting moral dilemmas we know. While trying to figure out how to cure the illness, he murders thousands of “sick” people, living with a germ they happened to come upon. He also believes that it was the human wars, bombs, and germ warfare that caused such devastation. How then, can these others deserve to die? Why shouldn’t he be the one to die? He is after all the new legend, the rumor of the last man; it is the infected now who are the majority in the world and fear the monster.
There is a brilliant moment in I Am Legend, when Robert has been alone for about 2 years. He opens the door in the daytime and a dog runs by. For 2 years, never has a living creature been seen in the daytime; then a mangy mutt. He takes it in; it dies, and it is heartbreaking. Richard Matheson delivers on moments like these. It’s a lovely scene in a scary and delightful book. And the ending, oh man. I can’t wait to see Will Smith give us this ending. They better not change the ending.
It is fucking unbelievable.I Am Legend.
Unfortunately, the film balked at this challenge.